Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Film Review: To Rome With Love

"To Rome With Love"  
*** 1\2 (out of ****)

Another year has come and gone and like clockwork, the greatest comedy filmmaker since Charlie Chaplin, Woody Allen releases a new movie.

Readers know of my great appreciation for Mr. Allen's films. He is my favorite living filmmaker. One of my great artistic inspirations. On my list of my favorite things in life watching the new Woody Allen movie in a movie theatre ranks up there with eating a good plate of chicken paprikash or listening to the music of Cole Porter or Michel Legrand.

However attending the screening of Allen's "To Rome With Love" (2012) was something of a bittersweet experience. Much has changed since Allen gave us last year's "Midnight in Paris" (2011). Of course Allen has changed locations. No longer are we in Paris but as the title suggest we are in Rome. Allen is back on-screen after a six year departure. "Scoop" (2006) featured his last performance. But the biggest change was a personal one for me. "Midnight in Paris" was the last movie I saw with my ex. Admittedly it was a factor in my choosing it as my favorite film of last year. This time though I walked into "To Rome With Love" alone. It weighed on my mind. I have no one to share, what I find to be, important experiences in my life.

Allen has never been shy about his admiration for Italian cinema. His "Stardust Memories" (1980) was inspired by Fellini's "8 1\2" (1963) and his "Small Time Crooks" (2000) burrowed heavily from the Italian comedy "Big Deal On Madonna Street" (1958). So it only seemed natural that Allen's European adventure, which as taken him to London, Paris and Barcelona, would eventually take him to Rome.

Word on the street is Allen's latest film isn't up to his usual standards. It is not one of his great films and after the success of "Midnight in Paris" which was Allen's highest grossing film and one for which he won his third Academy Award for in the screenplay category, "To Rome With Love" doesn't compare.

Of course these are the obstacles any filmmaker has to endure when they are coming off a hit film. Everyone is going to compare it to the previous film and because it is part of our human nature to criticize more easily then to compliment, people are always going to complain that whatever Allen's latest film is, it isn't good. It is the fashionable thing to do. To say Allen hasn't made a great film since the 80s. That's all fine and dandy but, honestly, after a while the argument gets old.

Even people who like "To Rome With Love" are saying it is a dessert, a light truffle, as compared to a main course. What some people fail to consider is a good dessert can be rich and filling. Allen is too sophisticated a filmmaker to make "dumb" movie. "To Rome With Love" offers many clever insights and makes observations on society. The film deals with the status of celebrity, the difficulties of young love, the wisdom which comes with age, our constant desire to want to correct the past and the universal fact that everyone sings better in the shower. Allen is able to package what seems to be a trivial, silly movie to a mainstream audience, which often says it wants to watch movies where it can shut off its brain, and throws in important themes.

"To Rome With Love" is an episodic movie, in the tradition of Italian comedies like "Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow", which follows four stories all at once. In the funniest of the stories Allen plays Jerry, a retired classical music director, who travels with his wife, Phyllis (Judy Davis) to Rome so they can meet the man their daughter, Hayley (Alison Pill) plans to marry, Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti). Jerry isn't impressed with Michelangelo, whom he thinks is a communist, but, is impressed when he hears Giancarlo (Fabio Armiliato), Michelangelo's father, sing in the shower. This, Jerry believes, is his ticket out of retirement.

The next story involves John (Alec Baldwin) as an American architect visiting Rome. Many years ago, back as a student, he lived in Rome and met a beautiful woman and had a tragic love affair. The experience has not left him and with age and some 20/20 hindsight he now sees more clearly into the situation and his past mistakes. In what may or may not be a figment of his imagination he meets Jack (Jesse Eisenberg) another American living in Rome, studying architecture. Jack lives with his girlfriend, Sally (Greta Gerwig). Sally informs Jack her friend, Monica (Ellen Page) has just broken up with her boyfriend and wants to visit them as an escape. John sees the possibilities of trouble on the horizon while Jack makes the same tragic mistakes John did.

The only bad thing about this segment is the viewer never quite knows what is real and what isn't. Is Jack really John as a young man? Is John part of Jack's imagination, sort of the voice of reason which lies in all of us? That voices that tells us we are about to make a mistake. But Allen walks this tightrope nicely.

In the final two stories Roberto Benigni plays Leopoldo, a married man with children, who works as a dentist and for some unexplainable reason finds himself turned into a celebrity. The last story revolves around a newly-wed couple which travels to Rome where Antonio (Alessandro Tiberi) has been offered a job. This will be the big chance he and his wife, Milly (Alessandra Mastronard) have always wanted. But the big city has a way of corrupting people doesn't it? This young couple's love will be tested as the two end up spending their honeymoon separated as Milly hunts down a celebrity and through a case of mistaken identity Antonio ends up with a hooker, Anna (Penelope Cruz) whom he must pretend is his wife to his family. This story actually resembles the Fellini's comedy "The White Sheik" (1952) also about a newly wed couple who spends their honeymoon apart as the wife tracks down a celebrity.

Allen has gained the reputation of being this country's Ingmar Bergman. And it is an easy case to make when Allen has given us such films as "Deconstructing Harry" (1997), "Another Woman" (1988) and "Love & Death" (1975) but Allen has become something of the American Eric Rohmer, that great French filmmaker who made films about the joys and difficulties of love young. With movies such as this one and "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" Allen makes similar commentaries on love and youth.

As always Allen's film is filled with great music. We hear a recording of "Volare" sung by the famous Italian singer Domenico Mudugno over the credits, an updated version of "Amada Mia, Amore Mio" and "Arrivederci Roma". But if I have to look at the movie with a critical eye the only flaw I can think of is Allen doesn't show Rome as a beautiful city. I fell in love with Paris after "Midnight in Paris". I wanted to visit Barcelona after "Vicky Cristina Barcelona". But Allen didn't make a similar valentine to Rome. Odd for a filmmaker which often makes the city a character in his movies.

Still, there is enough about "To Rome With Love" to enjoy.